Orrin Keepnews dies at 91; Grammy-winning jazz producer, historian

Orrin Keepnews dies at 91; Grammy-winning jazz producer, historian
Orrin Keepnews accepts his Jazz Master Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in New York in 2011. Keepnews founded three important jazz record labels and released a collection of liner notes, essays, reviews and commentary "The View from Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-87"; in 1988. (Charles Sykes, Associated Press)

Orrin Keepnews, a Grammy-winning music producer and writer who recorded and worked closely with such well-known jazz artists as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Wes Montgomery, died Sunday at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. He was 91.

He had been in failing health for some time, his wife Martha said.


Although he had no training as a musician, Keepnews founded three important jazz record companies — Riverside, Milestone and Landmark.

Active in the recording business well into his 80s, Keepnews had seen massive changes — in the creative aspects of jazz, as well as the technology of recording — over the long arc of his influential career.

"I am fond of saying I'm a couple of years older than stereo," he told Billboard in 2001. "I started in the business with one-track recording, and here I am involved with downloading."

Born in the Bronx, N.Y. on March 2, 1923, Keepnews listened as a boy to live radio broadcasts of big swing bands.

As a teenager, he discovered jazz — almost incidentally.

"When I was still in high school, friends told me a great place to take a date and have a cheap evening was one of the bars on 52nd Street or Nick's in the Village," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "I got to hear jazz live in my mid-teens because I was illicitly able to hang out in these rooms. There was something that reached out and grabbed me and held on to me."

After receiving a bachelor's degree in English from Columbia University in 1943, Keepnews served in the Army Air Forces on bombing raids over Japan — an experience, he later said, that "made a lifelong pacifist out of me."

After the war, he worked as a book editor for Simon & Schuster and, in 1948, began writing for former classmate Bill Grauer, who published Record Changer magazine. Four years later, Keepnews and Grauer teamed up to produce a series of re-releases of early jazz performances by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds and others for RCA's X label.

In 1953, the pair opened Riverside Records. Not especially drawn to early bebop, they initially emphasized the sort of traditional material they'd assembled during their stint with RCA, licensing music for reissue from the departed 1920s label, Paramount. Among their important reissues was the multi-LP "Riverside History of Classic Jazz."

But the company's ultimate visibility was primarily based upon Keepnews' now legendary recordings with Monk, Evans, Adderley, Montgomery, Jimmy Heath and other soon-to-be-prominent young players.

After Grauer died of a heart attack in 1963, Riverside went bankrupt. Two years later, Keepnews founded Milestone Records, recording Lee Konitz, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson and others.

When Fantasy acquired the catalogs of Milestone and Riverside in 1972 and 1973, Keepnews was asked to join the company and plan the reissuing of selections from both sources. Viewing it as an opportunity to work with music he had recorded, and to improve upon the choices he had made on the original studio dates, Keepnews accepted and moved to the West Coast..

He remained with Fantasy until 1985, when he established another new jazz record company, Landmark.

With a catalog ranging from Adderley and Bobby Hutcherson to the Kronos Quartet and cabaret singer Weslia Whitfield, Keepnews sold Landmark to Muse in 1993.


He later co-produced the 24-CD "Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973," the biggest box set in jazz history. He also prepared updated reissues of many of his early recordings for Concord Records' "The Keepnews Collection."

With Grauer, Keepnews wrote "A Pictorial History of Jazz: People and Places from New Orleans to Modern Jazz". His collection of liner notes, essays, reviews and commentary — "The View from Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-87" — was published in 1988.

In addition to his four Grammy Awards, Keepnews received a Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Recording Academy, and a Jazz Master Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He also was honored by Bill Evans in the composition "Re: Person I Knew" — the title an anagram for Keepnews' first and last names.

In addition to his wife Martha Egan, Keepnews' survivors include sons David Keepnews and Peter Keepnews, an editor at the New York Times. His first wife, Lucile Kaufman, died in 1989.